Get Ethnic

When you say your ethnicity is American, there is no American ethnicity. You had to throw away your ethnicity to become American. That’s what it means. That’s what it means. You give up who you are to become American. And you can pretend that it’s OK because you’re white, when we give up who we are to become American we know that we’re dying from it. You’re dying from it too but you don’t know it necessarily. Get ethnic, you know.

Victor Lewis in The Color of Fear.

What Victor Lewis says about the conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and whiteness (beginning at 3:36 in the clip above) is one of his many insights in The Color of Fear, a documentary featuring men of different races and ethnic backgrounds speaking candidly about race and racism. Here he’s responding to another participant, a white man, who has asserted that he is simply an American, without any ethnic distinction, and who wonders why the men of color can’t, or won’t, say the same about themselves.

What Victor says about how a person becomes American is important for the way he shows how ethnic particularity is incompatible with being white. Ethnicity and cultural particularities have to be shed – thrown away – in order to attain the promises of whiteness and, just as importantly, to distance one’s self from racial blackness on the other end of our racial hierarchy. This is what it means to be American, something Victor’s antagonist hasn’t been able to see because he’s lived his entire life within the assumptions of American whiteness.

Just as important – perhaps more – is Victor’s claim that those, like himself, risk life itself in the pursuit of American-ness. Holding onto one’s particularities is a life-saving act within a society whose demand for assimilation may very well include your personal demise.

All of this points to a question which Victor alludes to with anger and fatigue when he says, “Get ethnic, you know.” The question, I think, goes something like this: What are white people to do after realizing our conflation of nationality, ethnicity, and race are neither an accurate reflection of reality nor a neutral state of being? Or: Can white people, having woken up to the fact of their whiteness, reclaim their particularities that were long ago thrown away?

This is what I take Victor to be responding to. “Get ethnic” is a demand to take steps away from the malicious generalities of racial whiteness to something more humane, like the uniqueness of ethnicity. This strategy is somewhat common among those who think carefully about race and whiteness. The idea is that if I, a white person, can get in touch with the long-forgotten aspects of my cultural and ethnic past, I have a better shot of moving beyond my default to whiteness- a default that isn’t neutral, which has warped my understanding of myself and others. Victor’s demand, though it sounds somewhat sarcastic, is actually quite gracious. He’s offering the white man an escape route from his whiteness

But can this actually work? For as often as I’ve heard white people encouraged to get in touch with our ethnicity – often by other thoughtful white people – I’ve never actually seen a white person stop being white by reverting back to their ethnicity or, more likely, multiple ethnic backgrounds. As good as it might be to maintain a connection to one’s history, that connection itself cannot provide a strong enough lived experience to counteract the racialized society through which we’re constantly feeling our way.

If I can be my own case study to make this point, what would it look like to reclaim my ethnic backgrounds? Which would I choose? German? Swedish? What about the parts of my family that spent generations in the American South? And which specific aspects of these different regions and cultures should I choose from? Would I have to learn each of the languages of my ancestors? Would I need to travel to each of these places and spend significant time living there?

It seems to me that any attempt by a white person to replace whiteness with a discarded past ends up a sort of strange act of reverse cultural appropriation.

This isn’t only a problem for those of us who currently perceive ourselves as white. As Victor points out, whiteness is attainable for some – not him – who are willing to shed generations of particularities. There are, for example, many American immigrants who today are perceived as foreign or other but whose children or grandchildren will have assimilated to whiteness. The price, of course, will be the intentional forgetting of what had been essential to their immigrant ancestors.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with holding onto or rediscovering parts of one’s ethnic or cultural uniqueness. We just shouldn’t confuse those acts as being enough to escape the constrictions of whiteness. That’s simply not how race has ever worked in America.

Is their an alternative, or are we left to understand that all those who can assimilate to white American-ness inevitably will? For me, this is the most important question. Another way to ask it: Is there anything strong enough to subvert the deforming power of race? Ethnicity, I’m claiming, is not strong enough, not as generations are shaped by this racialized society.

I think there is another possibility. It has to do with land and the way people are formed by place. I hope to explore this in a future book, though for now I’d best focus on finishing this first one

Young Leaders: Here Are 10 Ways to “Lead Up” for Reconciliation and Racial Justice

My most recent article for Missio Alliance has been posted.

The concept of leading up within organizations is common. Leading up, when done well, benefits the entire congregation, as the insights and innovations of youth are brought into conversation with the foresight and wisdom of older generations of godly leadership.
This dynamic is important when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, particularly among majority-white churches. Given the inertia of racial privilege and the insulating impact of racial segregation, these churches benefit from the idealistic voices of younger leaders. If these women and men can leverage their influence up the leadership ranks with wisdom and humility, the entire church stands to grow in racial reconciliation and justice.

Read the rest on the Missio Alliance site.

The Color of Life

I recently reviewed Cara Meredith’s new book, The Color of Life, for The Englewood Review of Books.

On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi for his final year of college. What should have been a straightforward process involving applications and recommendations was anything but easy. Riots broke out on campus two nights before the arrival of the 29-year-old incoming senior. The possibility of the first African American student at Ole Miss was significant enough to draw concerted opposition from the governor of Mississippi and intervention by Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General. Reflecting later, Meredith, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, remembered his time at the university as a war, one which he won by forcing the federal government to intervene to defend his civil rights. This was a war against white supremacy and Meredith was willing to lead the charge, no matter how violent the response.

It is impossible not to think about Meredith regularly while reading The Color of Life and not only because the author regularly weaves his story through her narrative. Cara Meredith is the daughter-in-law of the civil rights icon, married to his son James. Also, she is white.

Read the rest of the review at Englewood.

Children, Discipleship, and the Painful Way of Jesus

Is it a lost cause?This morning I wrapped up a draft chapter about children’s ministry for the book on discipleship and race I’m working on. I began my ministry serving children, but that’s been quite a few years ago so it was good to spend a couple of weeks reading and thinking deeply about the church’s kids. There were a number of books and articles that were helpful to me – Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids is a treasure and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin have written a great book about incorporating children in worship – but a theme in Marva Dawn’s Is It a Lost Cause? is probably what will stick with me the most.

Dawn writes repeatedly about the ways American culture forms us to avoid pain. She says that “one of the glaring characteristics of contemporary U.S. culture is the insistence that life be comfortable, easy, entirely without any kind of suffering.” Though she doesn’t make this connection, it seems to me that this tendency is especially pronounced within white churches whose experiences of racial privilege become conflated with our discipleship to Jesus.

The expectation that we must avoid pain is, as Dawn points out, totally incompatible with Jesus’ own experience. “Jesus himself suffered in every way imaginable – not only the pain and shame of the cross, but also homelessness, foreign oppression, the need to escape terror and live as a refugee. He lived as one who had no place to lay his head.” And then, of course, there was the crucifixion.

What Dawn is pointing out – and what I hope to contextualize to the goal of discipling white children away from racism – is how our discipleship to Jesus will inevitably lead us through pain. We must invite our children and their parents to come to see their pain – to really see it – as an opportunity to meet the crucified Savior more intimately and to then follow him more closely on the way to redemption.

For White Christians Who Keep Supporting the President Despite Most Other Christians Asking Them to Reconsider

It’s election time again and during the two years since the last one I’ve thought about you a lot. Your enthusiastic support for the president sent a shiver through the American church which many of us are still trying to make sense of.

It’s not that we’re surprised that so many white people voted for the president. As we listened to his dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants, heard his plans to ban people from Muslim-majority countries, and remembered his racist language and actions towards African Americans, it was clear that a segment of white America would be attracted to this man. No, what was – and remains – so disturbing was your support. It seems that every poll since the last election shows white Christians among the president’s most fervent defenders.

Here’s the thing: I’m not interested in telling you how to vote. The amount of variables in any local election are significant and require great discernment from any Christian voter. What is interesting to me is your ongoing ignorance of why so many other Christians – Christians whose racial identities are different from yours but whose faith has been placed in the same God – are disturbed and even frightened by how you continue to support this president.

Does this distinction makes sense to you? It’s not your preferred political party that is the issue. It’s your disinterest toward your family in Christ that troubles so many of us. Over the past two years I’ve listened as you have described your attraction to this president. Yet not once have I seen the cares and concerns expressed by Christians of color be met in any way other than dismissively or defensively. I’m still waiting for the Trump-supporting white Christian who will show genuine interest and concern for those people of color who she is related to in Christ, and whose lives have been made less safe by this president.

I’ve heard some of you, in response to what I’ve said so far, complain that I’m picking on white Christians. Given the nature of cultural differences, you’ve told me, the ignorance across racial differences goes both ways in our churches. But this is plainly wrong. Our family members in Christ who exist outside the boundaries of racial whiteness don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant about us white people. It might surprise you to know that many, many Christians of color can describe precisely – even sympathetically – why you voted for this president. That they know more about us than we do about them is a simple function of a society which contains a racial majority.

But what is normal within our racialized society should be alien to our churches. We who have been grafted into the family of God have no rationale for maintaining our ignorance about our fellow family members. When, for example, black Christians describe the fears raised when the president wants innocent black men sentenced to death, it must be the response of the entire church to attend closely to these fears, to make them our own. Or when the president releases a patently racist ad directed, once again, at Latino/a immigrants, all of our churches must feel the attack and sit with one another in solidarity and lament. Our churches, as witness-bearers to our reconciling Savior, are meant to stand together in response to every injustice that affects any of us.

I’ve spent the last couple of years looking for any example of this sort of solidarity without any luck. So what would you have us do? We, your fellow Christians, who are asking not for your vote but for your compassion?

It’s an honest question. As best I can tell, you would prefer to support an administration that actively harms members of the Body of Christ without believing those members when they describe the harm they’ve experienced. To say it slightly differently: You have made yourselves the authority about the lived realities of Christians of color in order to disregard their own descriptions of their realities.

I once heard a Native American Christian describe his many years of being ignored and disbelieved by white Christians. Despite his best, thoughtful attempts, the majority of white Christians simply wouldn’t take seriously his painful experience of the country. He finally came to see white Christians as the weaker sibling described by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. He decided he had to change his expectations about them, imagining white Christians as immature children rather than emotionally mature and compassionate adults.

I realize how that characterization stings. I feel it too. But you’ll understand, I hope, how many of us are grasping at explanations for why you remain content in your detachment and disinterest from the rest of your Christian family.

What do I want for you? I’ve asked myself this a lot over these two years. I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’ve got for now: I want my fellow white Christians to take our allegiance to the Kingdom of God more seriously than our American citizenship. Which is to say, I want white Christians to love and believe the rest of our Christian family.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Photo credit: Jake Guild.

“And for the first time I felt my nakedness.”

For several years I lived in what seems to me now to have been a very general way. My major aim was to keep writing, and I had done so by taking advantage of random opportunities, traveling here and there, living a year or two in one place and a year or two in another. And then in the spring of 1964 I turned back on the direction I had been going. I returned to Kentucky, and within a year bought and moved onto a little farm in my native part of the state.

That return made me finally an exile from the ornamental Europeanism that still passes for culture with most Americans. What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness. I realized that the culture I needed was not to be be found by visiting museums and libraries and auditoriums. It occurred to me that there was another measure for my life than the amount or event the quality of the writing I did; a man, I thought, must be judged by how willingly and meaningfully he can be present where he is, by how fully he can make himself at home in his part of the world. I began to want desperately to learn to belong to my place. The test, it seemed to me, would be how content I could become to remain in it, how independent I could be, there, of other places.

– Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound.

Here Berry is making the important connection between race and place. In a book about his own coming to terms with racism and its psychological and spiritual impact on all Americans, but especially white Americans, Berry finds that his own healing depends on his willingness to submit to place, to stop living, as he describes elsewhere, as “urban nomads.” The reasons for this connection are many and Berry gets at some of these, mostly related to culture and economics, but he misses what I consider to be most fundamental, that race was created as a means to sever people from place. As Willie Jennings has pointed out, by granting the pseudo-scientific construction of race the power to define bodies, European colonialists (and their descendants) detached themselves and those they sought to exploit from God’s creation. No longer was the earth itself – with its cultures and histories – the lens through which peoples were encountered and understood (or understood themselves), now the warped veneer of race could be conveniently applied to those whose labor and bodies were desirable for profit.

Deciding to reject “ornamental Europeanism” for a local life submitted to place did not immediately lead to wholeness for Berry, but it did expose his racial nakedness and from that honest place he began his journey toward a more humane life.

Transgressing Whiteness

33897495274_9df3399f90_kAlmost daily I hear someone claim that the president has crossed a new line, that surely now his white Christian supporters will abandon him, or at least acknowledge (some of) his faults. It happened again yesterday after his press conference with Russia’s president. But this hoped-for line will never be crossed.

This president will never transgress the ideology most sacred to Trump’s white Christian supporters, their whiteness itself. We’ve watched him violate most of what politically-active white Christians have traditionally said is sacred about the USA: respect for the military, forms of sexual morality, even basic Christian doctrine. The president has repeatedly flaunted all of these and his supporters remain.

But this president will never transgress whiteness so he won’t lose the support of those Christians whose identity, it turns out, is primarily racial rather than ecclesial. Racist dog whistles, nostalgia for European culture, sympathy with white nationalists, violent responses to Latino/a migrants, slandering black nations… these aren’t embarrassments for Trump-ian Christians but assurances to their most deeply-held beliefs and fears. The sacred line that would need to be violated in order to lose these Christians is too deeply embedded within the president himself for him to ever cross. He shares this with his supporters… so he will never, ever lose them.

(I’m aware how deeply pessimistic, even cynical, this sounds. But the more precise we can be about the disease within much of white Christianity, the better we can address the sickness at its source. The treatment, I’m convinced, is a matter of discipleship, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Photo credit: Gray Salvation.